Friday, November 27, 2009

Box of memories

Last night was the anniversary of the first day of the Bombay attacks. Most of you know I went to cover the story for PBS -- I reached Bombay on Day 3, after the major operations were over, and stayed for the next week, talking to people and sussing out the security situation. It was heartbreaking.

Been a year, and I've been revisiting those days in my head. It makes me so sad.

So, imagine my surprise, when I opened the Indian Express this morning -- to find the lead article called "The Vanished Moment" asking why show of grief by the "middle class" is pushing to "replicate -- artificially, inaccurately, in miniature, and in bad taste -- the trappings of America's grief?"
I'm sure not what sort of show of grief would be deemed appropriate by the columnist and others who may share his view. Perhaps, since we are Indian and not America, we must always beat our chests and sob uncontrollably? Perhaps, since we are Indian and used to violence, we should not try and be this affected by an event that should ideally bounce off us? Perhaps we need to apologize that the Bombay attacks affect a demographic that has easy access to the news media and therefore dominate the news?

We have not had the hysteria that surfaced in America, the columnist argued, so why are we trying to be America by holding vigils? Are we going to do this for every attack? Must our grief be a "cheap knockoff"?

I, for one, am deeply offended. Say what you will about TV channels cashing in our collective urban grief, but to chide people for showing their solidarity with victims, survivors, the buildings, the city and for showing up to make themselves feel better is rubbish. Perhaps if we could all write national columns, people wouldn't need to take to the streets to express themselves.

I never thought you'd have to be present at the scene of a massacre to feel sympathy, but I might just be proven wrong today. To call emotions still unresolved from that attack "synthetic" is awful. Have a heart.

India is not America. 26/11 is not 9/11. I think we know that.

Don't tell us to get over it. YOU get over it.

PS - You blame the country for comparing the Bombay terror attacks to the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. In your article, you have compared "genuine collective emotion" for Bombay with grief for Princess Diana's death.

PPS- I was told many years ago to lock my idealism in a box because that's the only way I will succeed in life. I beg to differ.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Need your vote

As many of you know, Video Volunteers won the Knight News Challenge two years ago for our Community Video Unit project. We are hoping to expand this now.. and so have made a new application for funding...

BTW the CJ program is aiming to create a Rural Reuters in the long term so that the mainstream will understand the realities of India and the media will reflect it..

Please click on this link, read... RATE it.. and leave a comment if you want. But DO it... NOW.

Thanks guys!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What I see is what you get

At a conference of 'community video producers', Yasho and Bipin were invited on stage to share their love story. If you didn't know that they were from slums, you could be fooled into believing they were high-powered executives who met at a business conference. In a way, they did. Yasho and Bipin are both 'community video producers'. Yasho is from Maharashtra, and Bipin from Gujarat. They met a few times at community training camps. Bipin was quite bold, he told us, and called Yasho and said "I love you". She, in turn, lectured him about how they couldn't get married. But he persisted, and they did! As people congratulated them, Yasho took the microphone to make a speech. "It is not easy to do this," she warned, "you have to fight for your marriage. Remember you will need a lot of strength to fight for a love marriage." Her husband agreed. This is why they remain deeply involved in community media. To change not just their own lives, but those of the others.

For Yasho, if she hadn't joined the local NGO that was offering to train locals in camera work and editing, she would have never married a man of her choice. It is a fact. She is the oldest of seven sisters and was stuck at home taking care of them. Venturing out of the house was a challenge, but she fought for it. Her new team, called Apna TV was a motley crew of people, some of whom had been mechanics and housewives. Akshara, a NGO for women, sponsored their training, which continues to this day. At first, when they went out into the locality with a camera, people were sceptical. But when they screened their first movie, people changed. They congratulated her father on what a smart girl she had grown up to be. People were eager to help them make the next movie and the next time even more came to the screenings. And in the end, when she finally told her parents she wanted to marry a Gujarati boy, they told her they had complete faith in her judgment.

Bipin too changed during his tenure as a community media producer. He used to hit the young girls in his family, if they made a mistake. He didn't think about it. Now, he says with a chuckle, they beat me up! Although his family is conservative, he doesn't mind that Yasho will not wear her 'mangalsutra' ("why should she have to if I don't?") and likes having an intelligent working wife. In fact, he still lives in Gujarat while Yasho lives in Maharashtra, and they meet about twice in a month. The work they do is larger than their story alone, so they don't mind.

So, what exactly is community media? Democratic to its core, it is media 'by the people, for the people, of the people'. While mainstream media concentrates on national issues and the big cities, the poorest in India get left in the dark. Community media aims to give them their own media industry. The New York based NGO, Video Volunteers, is spearheading this movement across India. Under the leadership of Jessica Mayberry, a former journalist in the US and Stalin K. Padma, a social activist, community video outfits are being set up in many different parts of the country, under VV India. First, interested NGOs tie up with Video Volunteers. They make the initial investment that buys the equipment and pays the salary of the local producers. Video Volunteers provides in-depth technical training for the next few years, free of cost. Together, a team of journalists emerges at the local level. These are journalists who make surprisingly great quality video stories on social issues including domestic violence, migration and infrastructure needs. But, the story doesn't end there. The main aim of the entire exercise is to induce action from the people watching. People normally left out of the great debate about the future of this country find themselves empowered with information. They understand how they can take action to get positive results.

Manjibhai, a popular community video coordinator from Gujarat -- Apna Malak Ma -- is a Dalit. During his video screenings, non-Dalits come, but sit on chairs while Dalits sit on the ground. He hopes this will change over time. What has changed, though, is amount of wages being paid to Dalits in the area. In an interview with a local upper caste businessman, it became clear that before he watched the film, he had never ever considered, even for a moment, the plight of a Dalit who needed to feed his family. Enlightened, he now pays minimum wage.

In a workshop in Goa, Manjibhai, Yasho, Bipin, Jessica, Stalin and countless others came to celebrate and assess community media today. Stepping away from the romance and nobility of it all, the simple truth is that unless these community video outfits operate as independent self- sustaining entities, in the end, they will not be truly empowered. Presently, NGOs like Akshara pump in money for the purchase of equipment (about Rs.14 lakhs in the first year) to set them up, in addition to another Rs 3 lakhs per annum towards running expense. The producers are employed as full-time staff, because otherwise productivity of the project is compromised. This also allows the newly employed ‘producers’ to change their own paradigm from manual labour to blue collared work. It gives them the respect they deserve and fuels their ambition further.

The aim is to allow for a workable entity that is financially self- sustaining. Only when the new unit becomes a profit centre, will the transformation will be complete. To this end, two CVUs (or community video units) may have paved the way. The first, Chetana TV from Andhra Pradesh has secured government funding and a contract to provide their content to four local regional channels. Of all the CVUs assembled in Goa, they had the fastest turnout rate for social impact movies. The other CVU, Samvad, is Gujarat based. They record marriages and other events around Ahmedabad, which provides a source of income.

In a world where content is plenty, pouring out of every cell phone in every corner, the larger question is to ask is: will community media content sell outside its reach of influence? Would a mainstream channel, really, honestly, want to buy hours of footage about dowry in Gujarat from a local CVU? If yes, then problem solved. If no, then CVUs need to get innovative about packaging content. The other question which Samvad will have to grapple with soon is: should CVUs ultimately become production houses or should they remain forever the agents for social change? The first option is tempting and easier. The second is not. To remain true to the primary purpose of the CVU, those involved with the movement will have to abide by the strictest definition of its core values and aim.

In its ultimate ambition, community video volunteers want to make big changes. But in order to get there, they need to continue the little changes. Sofia, a producer with Samvad, has a 9 year old son, Aftab, who has watched his mother work for the past three years. Not as a maid, but as a community leader. Her son, she says, will know the clear difference between right and wrong. He will go to college. Her resolve is amazing as it is firm, considering that the first time she left home to attend a workshop, her husband beat up when she returned home.

Today, Sofia helps make movies that expose domestic violence.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Emmy Nod

I apologize to everyone for staying mum for over a month! I was in DC, then back in NY, then London, and now Delhi. Some work, some holiday. In the middle of it all, I kept writing in my head, but somehow none of it made its way to my blog.

Then I got terrific news! The Mumbai Terror Attack stories I worked on for PBS (remember?) have been nominated for an Emmy. We are up against CBS and NBC, but I hope we win! How exciting is that!

Also, one of the main reasons I didn't write was because more than focus on the news, I was attempting to wrap my head around the future on journalism. When I went to meet my friends at the PBS World Focus studios, it was very sad to find that programming budgets were being cut sharply, with more focus on studio discussions. Even my friends at the NewsHour (PBS) complained of budgetary concerns. But, we all knew that. The question is, what is next?

What has hit America, and will take a much longer time to come to India, is dealing with the online world and the trap of free content. Because people are used to getting things free online, it is becoming difficult for news organizations to charge for content. I mean, we pay for cable. We pay for internet services. So what about individual websites? Well, I think, and people agree that certain established brands can charge for a premium service (as many do -- WSJ, Economist) and the customers will follow. The new thinking about online content (even if it is newspapers) is, give some content free and charge for the rest.

But there is an separate problem: too much content. In this case, something like "youtube" can serve as an example. Before a CNN can break a story, it is up on youtube. So what happens? CNN will slowly start showing youtube content on TV. CNN International already does, although it often says it cannot verify the source. So, do we need an "editorial" filter which is not necessarily a news channel but a media organization? Someone who can make sense of all this information and then give it to a news organization or let it remain floating on youtube?

I am strongly considering working with an NGO that uses the media to empower people, but at the same time I also want to look into the challenges new media poses for us. Do you know of any organizations that deal with these issues in India? I am not sure doing straightforward journalism is as rewarding for me, or perhaps its because I can't find a job! Who knows!

But anyway, I came to say hi and to give you the great Emmy news!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iranian turf war

How should Obama react to the Iran crisis, everyone seems to be asking. Should he take Mir Hossein Mousavi's side or should he just express concern and stay out it?

While watching the events unfold on TV, an expected thought popped into my head. I wondered if the people of Iran, especially the middle class which is sensitive to world opinion, would have ever reacted so violently if Bush hadn't made such a big deal about Iran being part of the "axis of evil"? His branding may have been unfair, but considering the rhetoric from Admadinejad, it isn't surprising that a huge demographic just want him gone.

It also occurred to me that Pakistan and Iran can (could) take to the streets because there is some sort of a democratic process that already in place. It made me think about Iraq and Afghanistan. Could the people have ever been so organized? I suspect they can now. But could they have done so earlier? Just a thought.

But back to Iran. I've been reading about this with great interest. Here is some history for those of you who need a refresher course (although it ends about three years before today).

I spoke to Afshin Molavi, a fellow at the New America Foundation in DC, and he told me a few really interesting things. He said, essentially, if you look at the players in this election (outside the Ayatollah) then it is a battle between the 1st gen and 2nd gen of politicians. The 1st gen came into play when the Shah was overthrown (also, ties with America). This includes the saviour de jour, Mousavi, who is fighting to be the next president. Ahmadinejad is part of the 2nd gen, which came into political maturity during the Iran-Iraq war. Therefore, they are anti-US.

If you look at the majority of the supporters of the two candidates (I'm keeping it simple for the purposes of this discussion) then there is a clear divide. Ahmadinejad has the support of the rural base while Mousavi has the support of the middle class.

Now, from my understanding (which I suppose was wrong) it seemed to me that Iran might clamp down on democracy, but elections are largely free and fair. However, with allegations that entire boxes of votes were not counted, or that the powerful Guardians Council was making up numbers of votes, clearly it seems my instinct was way off. I only thought this because Ahmadinejad was a surprise win in his time and also because the presidential debates etc were so robust and healthy in the run-up to the election.

What was going on during these debates? Mousavi blamed Ahmedinejad for leading Iran down a dangerous path. Not just isolation from the world, but what many people don't know is that there is enormous frustration with the economy. Ahmedinejad came to power with a cash rich economy (oil money) but now look at the state of affairs. There is enormous frustration at that.

But while Mousavi and others were making the case of incompetence (and staunch conservatism) , Ahmedinejad wasn't too far behind. He essentially blamed his opponents of being fat cats who have been taking bribes and are corrupt. Look at their big houses, he said. Afshin Molavi (the analyst I'd mentioned) said that this will definitely spark a crisis of legitimacy in the Islamic Republic of Iran, no matter who is in-charge.

And that brings us to the Ayatollah. It is well known that he supported Ahmedinejad, but there are a few other factors to take into consideration. There is a school of thought that believes that he won't be averse to a moderate coming into power, because it makes dealing with America simpler. In the sense that earlier, with Bush, it seems perfectly normal to have a conservative who ranted against the US on the high table. But now, with Obama, and his desire to perhaps cooperate with Iran on the matter of nuclear energy, a moderate might make it easier to resume dialogue. In fact, a month before the election, the Ayatollah went to visit Mousavi's sick father, and many saw this as a big hint. Other cracks also appeared: the Ayatollah had sent a letter to the AMC (Association of Militant Clergy) that they should support Ahmedinejad, but that led to rumours that many in the AMC were angered by this and in fact, oppose Ahmedinejad.

Given all this, and a demographic re-entering the electoral fray. Yeah, thats right. The middle class never ended up voting last time, and so this time they have been super involved. Now that their man didn't win (or maybe he did) they have taken to the streets, but unfortunately, things have turned bloody. But what has come out of this is that a tried and tested way of mobilising the middle class is the Internet, and internet activism is here to stay. I also wrote about this here.

Back to my question. Obama. What should he do. I keep thinking of something Jon Stewart said the other day ... who knew Iran would turn out to be the most democratic country in the Middle East?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lines Crossed

My day began with an interesting twist; I had to run to the US State Dept for a press briefing. The new guy -- well, the new old guy -- PJ Crowley, spokesperson, was addressing the press about the issues of the day. Predictably, US policy in the Middle East because of Obama's visit ("why does he call it the 'Muslim' world, as if they are all one") and US policy on China, given the anniversary of Tienanmen Square ("China has a come a long way in terms of human rights") were the highlights, but there was a different reason I was there.

I was to ask Crawley what the US response to Hafiz Saeed being let off was. You know the story -- Saeed (Pakistani) is the leader of Jamaat ud Dawa, which India believes is not really a charity organization but a front for the LeT. The UN put sanctions on the charity in December 2008. Well, our lone terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, in his confessions said that Saeed was one of the many people who visited the terrorist camps while they were being trained in arms/explosives, in the run up to the Mumbai terror attacks. India, being the restrained force that she is, decided to pursue a diplomatic track and not attack Pakistan, and with some pressure from the US on Pakistan, Saeed was put in jail. And Pakistan did agree that Saeed had a role in the attacks.

Now, Saeed has been released. I've read a lot about this and I'm quite unsure what the US can do -- well, in an obvious way. But let me explain what I mean. Pakistan claims there is not enough evidence to hold Saeed under house arrest anymore and has let him go, but voices within Pakistan have come out to say that they will appeal this order by the Lahore High Court as this will tarnish the reputation of Pakistan in the international community. We obviously expect the US to be aghast on our behalf, but it isn't saying much. I have read views in India that the government should release evidence against Saeed so that the Pakistanis can detain him, but it seems we are not doing that. Nor does it seem likely that Pakistan will, as we would love, send him to India for trial.

So back to Crawley. I asked him if the US wasn't worried that this move to build up Indo-Pak tensions, after all, the US has been trying to convince Pakistan to shift its focus to the Afghanistan/Taliban problem. Crawley gave me a long winded answer about respecting Pakistan's rule of law, and that they continue to impress upon Pakistan the need to carry on with the Mumbai attack investigations, but that right now Ambassador Holbrokes focus is on the humanitarian crisis resulting from the Swat attack in Pakistan. That was that, another journalist pressed on, but he did not take the bait.

I had to come back to work to file the story. As it turned out, the client was Times Now, and so I sent them a report from Washington saying that the US is not involving itself in this legal matter and that in Washington (really) this is hardly a concern. But, as Crawley had mentioned, Holbroke will have private discussions and this matter could be discussed. Times Now ignored that part of my report and chose to highlight that the US is asking Pakistan to continue with the 26/11 investigations. Fair enough, but they didn't stress that, what they stressed was that they were not going to do anything about it.

What is clear is that Pakistan attacking the Taliban is the biggest thing over here, and India is not going to ruin that for them by crying about the release of Saeed. I woke up in the morning to find out that a travel advisory had been issued against INDIA because, I believe a LeT operative was captured in Delhi. My father, who I spoke to on the way to work, said that the Congress had been voted in for non performance, and why was SM Krishna the minister for external affairs and not Kapil Sibal, Pranab or even Shashi Tharoor -- people more vocal and forceful?

What exactly is the US position on India? I know people are waiting for Hillary to come in July to get a clearer position. In fact, a few months ago (or was it weeks) when she made statements which seemed to reflect the situation in South Asia correctly (that Pakistan need not be obsessed with India and that Pakistan has not been using the money the US has been giving them for the intended purpose), it seemed that there might be a policy shift, finally. But as of right now, it is frustrating to find that it is not.

Holbroke has now said that other countries should also give aid to Pakistan -- he's appealing to the Europeans and Muslims. (Ah, there you go lumping all the Muslims together). But the real point is that it seems, poetically, in their eyes, they are saving a Muslim country from the brink of extremism and really, unless we have the exact same problem, we will just have to get in line.

After all, the problem child gets all the attention while the good kid sits in his room, seething.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A new old start

In the run up to the elections, more than ever, I’ve had people come to my blog to accuse me of being elite or not talking about “issues”. I want to explain something to all these wonderful people. This is MY blog. Perhaps you find me “elite” because by sheer twist of fate I went to a good school, then with a whopping 92% got into Stephens, managed other schools, grad schools and ended up working with brands like The Indian Express, Al Jazeera, PBS. Perhaps you would also be livid to know that I am currently doing a course at NYU to hone my editing skills.

Call it what you want. I work hard and most of the time, I get good work. Sometimes, I don’t – that is the risk. But I do my thing. Hopefully, I do it well.

And when I write on my blog, I write about the world as I see it. I don’t grudge other people their opinions. But I guess it is what it is, it does make for interesting reading.

Anyway, I actually flew out the day before elections. I voted for the first time – well, I was under 21 the last time we went to the polls. It was a great experience, especially the proud smiles everyone gave each other.

I was hoping this government would continue. My father had a very different view; he believes Manmohan Singh is a weak PM. I have my reasons, but mostly, I find this alternative better. I had a minor debate with another blogger recently about (again) how I was elite-baba log for not supporting Mayawati. I told him, I have no issue that she is doing well (not so much, as this election revealed), but I am not ready to have her represent me on an international stage.

I’m pretty bummed out I missed the countdown. I had booked my tickets a while ago, and hadn’t paid attention to the dates.

I had personally predicted a Congress win (although it was based on a feeling) because of one simple reason. I have no data to back it up. I traveled a bunch all of last year, and one thing I noticed in equal measure all over the country was that there was construction everywhere. Seriously. And that told me that people saw some movement in their lives. And if the going is good… why mess with it. This time, there was a lot of talk about development. A former colleague of mine from the Express told me that some people were worried that Nitish Kumar would not be voted back because he was developing the state. Why, I asked. She said that when people’s expectations rise, another guy will come and claim that he can take it further. And people might be tempted to work for the one with the maximum promise. A few weeks later, in fact, on the way to my polling booth, my father was talking about anti-incumbency. I told him, in my opinion, that concept did not really exist anymore, and people would not vote for the sake of it. I can say that because Delhi has voted for Mrs Dikshit only because of all the work she has done. It is so visible! And taking that logic further, when I saw work everywhere I traveled, I figured it must prove favorable to the government of the day.

There is another thing. I thought the political situation in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks was handled quite well – Chidambaram as Home Minister, and also out diplomatic discussions with Pakistan. I was not one of the people who wanted to see a knee-jerk reaction.

So I’m a happy camper for the moment.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Small is big

Double whammy:

India, the world's largest democracy, is scheduled to begin its multi-stage parliamentary elections on April 16. Neither of the country’s two major parties, the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are expected to gain a majority, meaning India is likely headed for another coalition government.

Mahima Kaul is a freelance reporter based in Delhi who has written for The Indian Express. She explains how India’s political landscape has changed over the past several decades, as political support has fragmented and smaller parties have become more influential.

Election fever has peaked here in India. You cannot escape it — even local pastry shops are baking goodies in the form of party symbols. This is typical of the fanfare and celebrations that engulf the country as political parties, their numbers increasing every day, chase the Indian voter.

But to understand the real significance of how India votes, one needs turn back the clock a little. India’s particular brand of democracy has gone through many changes over the past 60 years. It is a parliamentary system, much like the British, and every five years national elections are held and the party with the most seats forms the government.

Simple enough. And it was, when the Congress party was the single largest party in the country. But in the 1970s, the political landscape of the country started to change. Smaller political players began to move to the center stage, and by the 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in particular had grown in stature. Regional players began to flex their electoral muscles. This led to the system of government India has today — grand coalitions forming the government, with either the Congress party or the BJP leading it.

Over the years, the Congress party has steadily been losing ground in individual states, with regionalism trumping national concerns. Small state parties can hold the national government ransom because of the need for coalitions.

Political scientists have tried to decipher the mind of the Indian voter over the years. Overwhelmingly, votes are cast on the basis of identity; along religious or caste lines. That is why many members of parliament — and even chief ministers — have been voted back to power despite their obvious corruption and non-performance. Indian elections must be viewed through this prism.

This brings us to 2009. It is an enormous task to explain the internal dynamics of Indian politics because the number of players keep increasing by the day.

Some basics: The Congress leads the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, backed by smaller players that once included the Left (Indian communists). When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a nuclear deal with President Bush, the Left objected very strongly, and ultimately withdrew support from the government. This led to a “trust vote” in parliament where the UPA had to prove its majority.

What happened then was shocking and revealed the underbelly of Indian politics. The Congress-led government, allegedly, began to buy votes. BJP members brought, on live television, suitcases filled with wads of cash “proof” that the Congress party had tried to buy support. The nation was disgusted with the blatant display of corruption.

Not much later, the terror attacks in Mumbai revealed that while Indian politicians had been horse-trading and making money, the real work of a government — for instance, securing the borders — had been woefully neglected. Anger against the entire political establishment grew, because successive governments — be they Congress or BJP-led — have not taken these concerns seriously.

With polling beginning in only a few days, it is widely believed in the country that no party, including the Congress, will get a majority. Another coalition will be formed after the numbers are crunched. Opportunistic alliances will be made. Some of the larger regional players have also formed the Third Front; a credible threat to the UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Bookies all over the country seem to think that the present government, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will continue. However, if that happens, the Congress will undoubtedly need the support of smaller parties prove a majority in the house.

The refreshing electoral trend this time is that a number of urban professionals have decided to contest key metropolitan seats as independents, signaling that perhaps urban India is done voting for morally bankrupt political parties. Right now, democracy is a numbers game. Parties with no common ideology will come together to form a coalition if it means sharing power at the center. Then comes governance.

The hope young India has for itself is that it can change the country’s priorities by greater participation. Let us see how it votes.

Reprinted at:

Sunday, March 29, 2009


So many things, you guys. I've been battling it out at work -- who doesn't -- and as a result I have only been watching the news, not adding my two bits to all the bits that keep getting added. Ah, english. I love you.

Ok, so first things first. Varun Gandhi: seriously? I understand the guy is desperate to get elected his first time, probably by a landslide to impress his party, but seriously, really? It was his mothers constituency, and like every other young, educated person, he could have talked about development, but no. Pandering to the worst in people. Like I told someone, maybe he wanted to win badly, but is this really the way? And what is even worse is that people admire him for his speech. Reports say he can become a star BJP campaigner (if Modi is too busy, call Varun for some fireworks) and many people believe he was right to stand up for the Hindus. Man, India really is the land of contradictions. Does our majority constantly need validation? It boggles the mind. My take on it is this: I do think the speech is real, but of course, it is yet to be proven. I don't think his being a "Gandhi" is anything. What I think is sad is that he is a living example as to why professionals need to enter politics. When you've had the responsibility of running a company, holding a job, being part of an organisation; other people matter. You will, hopefully, not go shooting off your mouth in order to get votes. Anyway slowly but surely, politics is changing in India, I feel. These idiots are getting exposed for their empty rhetoric faster.

Ok, story two. IPL: Elections are bigger, so that is that. Now, if the IPL clashed with the elections and they decided that rather than cancel it, they wanted to move out the entire tournament, so be it. Yes, this will hurt India's image because not many people will look at all the details and just say that, well the government of India said it could not provide security. Yes, it will hurt our economy, as many people were banking on the IPL to make money, including hotels. But shit happens. We need to elect a government, and next year IPL can try and make up for lost time. The only thought I keep having is that what if they like holding the IPL in other countries and shift it country-to-country every year?! That would be something!

Elections: Post-poll, pre-poll. This year the election cycle is starting off pretty boring as far as I'm concerned, despite Rajdeep's attempts at making every single statement sound controversial every single night. Are smaller parties claiming their space by rejecting big parties, is the Third Front truly viable? We won't know till they try and form a government now, will we? The only sad thing is that this is all truly a numbers game. Like a lot of commentators say, this elections and the government that is formed will be built on numbers, not ideas. The trust vote was a teaser, post-election barter will be shockingly corrupt. I think it might be the peak of open corruption. After this, it will just have to go down. Who knows? But, maybe.

My back's hurting. Be back with more thoughts later.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Indian Express Video Features

So, as I'd said, I've been busy trying to produce videos for the Indian Express website.
I know the quality could be better, and I think my VO is too slow... but I am doing all the work myself... except for the occasional cameraperson, I am functioning as a one-woman-army..

Have a look, give me some feedback..

Rich man's world: There is nothing underground about the black economy.
The War Room:
L.K. Advani's campaign proves that technology can be a great motivator.
Midtown in Mumbai:
The residents of Dharavi are sceptical about the intent of the Dharavi Redevelopment Project.
Sun Burnt:
Urbanisation has yet again been at the cost of the farmers, a visit to Hyderabad reveals.
Road to Change:
Young people finding exciting business opportunities in being environmentalists.
Out with the trash:
“Disposable” points out that ragpickers perform an essential environmental duty, yet are denied a place in society.

More to come....

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pity party

I was sitting in Gurcharan Das's living room, watching with fascination as he and Dunu Roy, of the NGO Hazard Centre, were battling it out. Is India really rising, or is just a small fraction of it? Both had good points of view. Das said that since liberalization the country has moved leaps and bounds, while Roy said that not much as changed for those outside the system.

People often talk about the urban-rural divide. More distressing, sometimes, is the divide between the urban rich and the urban poor. Someone once said, in India, the rich must live necessarily with the poor. It's true. Don't kid yourselves, this rich-poor divide is everywhere -- not just the cities.

A few weeks ago I did a small story for the Indian Express about the unhappy state of Delhi's ragpickers. We are trying to set up an online video section (its still a work in progress so don't be appalled at the poor quality, please) so the story remain buried, but it was a really interesting example of how our system works -- or fails to. The ragpickers -- your kabadi vala -- are not officially part of the governments waste collection system, which is to say they are not government employees. They aren't exactly organised private players either; just very poor people with no other job options. When there is talk of privatisation of waste disposable, it always centers around a new company bring brought in, instead of them. Props to Vimlendu for pointing all this out to me. Anyway, so I went to the Ministry of Environment and also to Social Welfare Ministry to ask the Delhi state ministers why nothing was done for them. The answers were typical of the red tape that exists. As the Ministry of Environment is not in charge of waste collection, they could only help by providing gloves; not employment. Yes, the ragpickers are not paid for their services, but make money off the garbage they manage to recycle. Same with their welfare; the problem is known, but they are quite far away from the loving arms of the state.

But that is a story about the poverty that exists in the extreme outer circle of our cities. Poverty that could be helped by different government bodies sitting together and coming up with a coherent strategy. A thought echoed all over the country, in different ways. For example, take the village of Picharagarh outside Hyderabad. The farmers could not stop complaining about the NREG scheme. Why? Because they said, not only does it pay more than what they could pay for farm-hands (Rs 120 vs Rs 100) but the NREG schemes only required a few hours of work, unlike farming that went on all day. So the younger lot rather take the easy route. The farmers were totally confused about what to do, and one of them told me it might be more viable for him to give up farming. Others suggested that the NREG not limit itself to infrastructure development, but also farming. "But won't that mean that the government pays for your labour?" I asked them, and they said that they were ready to pay their workers if the government could work out a system with them. Food for thought. Or else we go hungry!

Ask anyone what the biggest concern in India is, and it is governance. It isn't terror attacks -- not for most people -- and corruption is passe. It is governance. Both political and of the bureaucracy.

How systems work, and how they allow themselves to ignore festering problems. I have spent some time in Dharavi on different shoots now, and it has come to represent, in my mind, one of the biggest problems this country has. We claim that we want to become a "rich" country; a superpower. Yet, very casually, we behave as if poor people have no aspirations and should, in fact, we happy for any little bone thrown their way. A loud voice from the slums and the corridors of power bristle. Like this Dharavi Redevelopment Plan for instance. Dharavi is in Mumbai now (which it wasn't when it was first set up) and so obviously, people have decided that the land could be put to much better use than slums. But the people of Dharavi are many, united, and refuse to move out of that area. So they have reached a deal with the government. They are going to be relocated in tall buildings, freeing ground space. How tall the towers will be, the size of the houses, is under debate. But one thing is very clear after speaking to everyone involved. The houses they are going to be put into are going to be really, really small.

Now the thing you need to understand about Dharavi, any other slum, or even a village is this: there are levels of poverty and also, in my opinion, definite signs of progress in some families. So while some have plastic sheets as their roof, others have tiled floors with TVs and fridges. But when we talk of them, we assume that they are poor and helpless, and also that we shouldn't plan for their future (i.e. give them space so that their families can breathe easy) but we do expect to be utterly grateful for small mercies. So what is going to happen? The slum will go from being a horizontal slum to a vertical one. Their lives will be put into these suffocating boxes for a new mall. And when a new slum will crop up next to that mall, the rich will complain loudly about their view being spoiled. And those who have actually saved money over the years to make their little hole in the wall a home will lose it all to a generic plan.

You know the most popular question I am asked in a lower income locality? How much I earn per month. I'm not kidding. They want to know whats out there, they want to reach that. These are not people who want to live by a different standard, they are only being forced to by circumstance.

But talk to people, even people in your own office, and they say insensitive things such as "oh they will be happy with anything" and I wonder why we assume that poor equals less than human. It's not true. And unless we give them tools to help them lead respectable lives -- no matter what job they have -- this country will forever remain third class. And countless lives wasted and unfulfilled.

P.S. The Dharavi story is truly fascinating. I'll post more on it later. Do come back and read.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Clash of Californications

Little did Samuel Huntington know, when he published a book called Who we are: The Challenges to America’s National Identity in 2004, that later that year, a young black man called Barack Obama would dazzle the nation at the Democratic National Convention by defining himself as the ultimate example of the American Dream. Obama’s interpretation of Americans couldn’t have been more different from the renowned Huntington — while the latter believed that immigration was taking America away from its core values which were build on a decidedly Anglo-Protestant ethic, the former believed that America is truly the land of possibilities where the son of an immigrant could rise to become a senator, now President.

Ironically, those who vehemently disagree with Huntington — as I’m sure Barack “Barry” Obama would — use the very strength of America’s social and political institutions as the reason for people coming to America in the first place. America is not the world’s leader because it is a country of white people, they say, but because it believes in freedom and liberty, and that all men are created equal.

To be fair to Huntington, and as the Economist put it, this is a “rational expression of a rational fear”. Watchers of American politics haven’t yet wrapped their head around the fact that a black president will mean that America will no longer be perceived as a white nation — or have they? The concern is not simply about black, Asians or Hispanics cracking glass ceilings; it is about the influx of communities who are slow to assimilate with American culture on the whole. The US census bureau reports that by 2042, what are minority groups today will form the majority of America’s population. The Hispanic population, today at around 43 million, is expected to rise to 133 million by 2050.

The question then becomes about the essence of multi-culturalism. Do you really need to abandon your original culture to become American? And conversely, is America ‘diluted’ if the majority if not white? Obama’s own story disproves these concerns. As a young man in the 1960s he initially went by the name Barry Obama, which he later abandoned for his real name, Barack. Owning up to his roots allowed him to appreciate and serve America better, and further the American Dream.

America was indeed based on the Protestant work ethic, which has become a part and parcel of what America is — capitalism is as instrumental in assimilating immigrants as government or politics! The focus, however, often lingers on culture — Huntington wrote at length about Hispanics being far too slow to assimilate into American culture, and in turn creating a dual system of dual language in the country: English and Spanish. But the Pew Hispanic Centre studies have found that while only 4 per cent of first-generation Hispanics can speak English as their first language, by the third generation the number rises to a phenomenal 78 per cent.

These fears of Americana getting lost, or dissolving, have surfaced before. But the world would not admire “Americana” so, if the White House referred to the colour of one’s skin and not the colour of the walls.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pandagiri, Pushkar estyle...

It began with a bus ride. Three of us -- a lifestyle writer, a photographer and I -- had overslept and missed our train to Ajmer (in Rajasthan) from where the small town of Pushkar is only a half hour bus ride. The short version of how we finally reached Pushkar (and only three hours behind schedule) involved that bus, a smaller bus and a vegetable cart. The cart, of course, is an eyebrow raiser, so let me explain. We had gone to Pushkar during the "Pushkar Mela". Held annually, this is a camel fair, where traders from surrounding states come with camels, and around this event an entire industry has cropped up. Clothes, handicrafts, ferris wheels -- you name it. Visitors throng the tiny town, both from within the country and outside it. The fanfare of the mela is complemented by the fact that Pushkar is a religious hub. The Pushkar lake, around which the town has come up, is sacred. There are 500 temples in the town alone, and also a famous temple to the God Brahma. This is the only temple to Brahma in the world, we are told, as legend has it, Brahma fell in love with his own daughter, and so, is not worshipped anywhere except here. Back to the vegetable cart -- with the influx of visitors and camels alike, cars and other modern vehicles are not allowed in the town, and some vegetable sellers moonlight as makeshift taxi drivers for the duration of the mela -- much to our shock and delight.

So here we were, on a vegetable cart with our bags and a tripod, navigating our way through the narrow streets of Pushkar. Radheshyam, our illustrious driver, had promised that this was normal during the mela, but all the tens of people pointing and laughing at us made us rather suspicious. I'm ashamed to admit, but we made Radheshyam take us to four different guesthouses before we settled on one, although we did get off the cart! We settled for Sunset Cafe, right next the lake, and the hotel came complete with a one year old Alsatian called Honey who jumped on you every chance he got. (Yes, Honey is a boy.)

At night, we eyed a rooftop restaurant called The Bird Eye; a Goa-lite eatery, complete with wall graffiti, psychedelic music and an Israeli menu. The owner, about twenty-five, defied the image of Pushkar we had in our minds. As we sat down, a waiter offered us beer, a clear no-no in the religious town. (Non-vegetarian food, alcohol and drugs are not allowed, as hoardings all over Pushkar constantly remind you.) Interest piqued, we chatted him up and asked him what life in Pushkar was all about. He hinted that his restaurant had police protection, and therefore he could serve whatever he wanted, directing us to look at some of the patrons who were smoking more than just regular cigarettes. So, is this a hippy town rather than one filled with religious people, we asked. He took offence, and told us with great pride that he went to pray by the lake for three hours every morning and insisted that all his staff do to. What's more, he told us, he belonged to the Parashar family who were alone allowed to touch (and therefore clean) the Brahma idol in the famed Brahma temple. His cousins rotated this sacred duty he told us proudly, adding with a slight chuckle that sometimes they paid one another to take their turn, as these holy duties were performed at the unearthly hour of 3am!

It was clear to us that Pushkar's local gossip was going to be far more interesting than the Camel Fair. We asked him who else we should meet, and he pointed us in the direction of a Canadian girl who had settled down in Pushkar and opened a cafe. The next day, armed with notepads and cameras respectively, we headed to Laura's Cafe. Her story was a common -- she had come to Pushkar and fallen in love. We were interrupted by some guests, and while she scurried to the kitchen I waved down one of her waiters to chat with him. Are you from Pushkar, I asked him. What do you think about foreigners here, especially the women? Are they not different from the local Pushkar women who are kept inside the house, I probed, and how do you feel about that? He was a bright boy, only a few years younger than me, but much taller. Laura appeared as he disappeared. She told us it was for the waiter we had just been talking to that she had decided to live in India. She knew she might have to move home in a few years, but she mused that at least she could leave him better off than she found him; as the owner of this fine establishment. 

I can't lie and tell you we were not a little shocked. I know love breaks through all barriers, but we were so blindsided by this plot-twist that we remained mum for a while. How do you communicate, we asked her. ("He knows some English.") What about his family? ("They have been really good to me.") What about your own parents? ("I can't tell them because some time ago I tried to date an African American, and they did not like that at all.")

While my fellow companions wandered off to take pictures, I decided to explore the street shops with their curious little pajamas and fashionable kurtas. I was accosted by a pandit who literally forced some flowers into my hand and insisted that now I better go immerse them in the lake. Before I knew it, another pandit had appeared to escort me to the banks, and then another sat me down to start the prayer. Now, I'm a fair girl -- Kashmiri -- so it's understandable that the pandits were a little confused whether I was Indian or not. I was dropped like a hot potato the moment they heard I was from boring old New Delhi, and not Italy or Spain. Of course, I resisted all attempts they made to empty my pockets, giving them only Rs 100 as donation. I'm not that cheap -- but the pandit doing my ritual called out to another take over while he was doing it, and the next took a cell phone call while he was performing the rites! I was also told that if I did not have the money on me, I could go to the ATM and call them (I was handed a business card). Ignoring this, I asked him what he thought the young people of Pushkar. He told me, with much disdain, that a lot of the young Brahman boys who should be following in the family footsteps are more attracted by commercial ventures -- eateries and guest houses -- and are being lured by foreign girls "by the sex". As long as the romances stay causal, the pandits seemed to accept it, but the moment they wanted to get married, was the moment trouble would start, they predicted.

To a married couple, we thought! We found one in the whole town. The foreign half was a French girl, a doctor, who had settled down with a farmer in Pushkar eleven years ago. (There were two other couples, but neither Indian was native to Pushkar). Her husband, she told us, is illiterate. She home-schooled her children because, if they went to a local school, they could never fit in French society. It isn't easy, she mused, telling us that she has seen many girls attempt to settle down inPushkar for love, but ultimately give up and go home. She found the pace of life peaceful, and although she prayed as a Hindu, she felt the pandits had become too commercial for her liking. She was trying to teach the locals to recycle, and to join drives to clean the Pushkar Lake. She was busy. She was happy. 

The three of left this little bubble brimming with thoughts. In a place known for religious tourism, romance was blossoming. For my fellow journalists, their story was the people who travelled through India and fell in love. For me, it was the tide of events leading to a new Pushkar itself. Tourists with cameras abound. For every picture you took, ten people were taking a picture of you. Everyone knew everyone. Even the three of us were waving to all shopkeepers and entrepreneurs as we walked by, as if we'd known them for years! But far beneath this cosmetic change, is real churning. India today is bursting with news of religious extremism and bomb threats. But here, in a religious hub, there was no talk except that of romance (with a few wily pandits trying to make few extra bucks thrown in)! 

Before we left, we decided to visit the mela again; we'd gone the previous night be we had been overwhelmed by hundreds of men trying to get into "entertainment" shows featuring young girls promising to change into 'nagins' (snakes). In evening light, it looked lovely. We climbed aboard a ferris wheel to get a proper view, and were rather amused with the scores of Rajasthani aunties riding along with their faces covered with their chunnis! Camels -- 50,000 -- were everywhere, with the usual cows and horses thrown in. Very much the show we had originally come for.

There is a lesson to be learnt. Go visit, but when you do, dive in. You get much more than you paid for! 

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Online Armies

The internet’s grown, and so has cyber-crime: it’s a national security problem now

A lot happened while you were sleeping last night, and much of it won’t be reported in the news today. Silently but with great precision, hackers around the world have been attacking various websites — it’s the new frontier of politics. And unless we understand the many layers of the web, we’ll be caught up in it.

Paint me a picture, you ask. Here goes: The Eastern Railway website was hacked into last month, its scroll changed to read “Cyber war has been declared on Indian cyberspace by Whackerz-Pakistan”, apparently in revenge for Indian violation of Pakistani air space. An Israeli news website, Debka, blamed cyber terrorism for its site shutting down following the Gaza attacks. And Jane’s Intelligence Group (UK) just reported that Al Qaeda has been using online gaming websites to launder money to finance its activities.

Online crimes come in various sizes. There are some against persons, such as child pornography. There are some against property — corporate espionage, banking fraud, defacing websites. Hackers; those who “destroy or delete or alter any information residing in a computer resource, or diminish its value or utility, or affect it injuriously”, according to the Indian Information Technology Act, 2000, have also taken to social networking sites with great enthusiasm. Group discussions tend to turn rowdy, and in the end, resemble a drunken bar fight. Facebook has been caught up in a virtual war. A group formed to collect 500,000 online signatures in support of Palestine was hacked into by the Jewish Internet Defence Force, which closed the group, signing off with ‘Israel forever’. The Palestinian hackers, not to be outdone, reacted by taking back their group and posting a cartoon of Calvin urinating on the Israeli flag.

But a more sinister avatar has surfaced as crimes against the State. Organized hackers go into government websites to collect information. Last December, reports emerged that the prime minister’s email had been hacked -- and traced back to China. In the same month, the internal communication network of the Ministry of External Affairs was hacked into, as was the website of the State Bank of India. Even the German Chancellery and Pentagon have been victims.

This isn’t science-fiction, and books like Scott J. Henderson’s The Dark Horse, are very real. Henderson explores what Military Review magazine has termed China’s “active offence” online, and reveals that the Chinese government supports hackers who travel the internet in search of information crucial to other countries. India is one such favoured destination. As a response, the US, Russia and even China, employ ‘ethical hackers’ to hack into their systems to reveal any vulnerabilities that the malicious hacker could exploit. One of the worlds leading ethical hackers, Ankit Faria, has stressed the need for India to wake up, but even as late as December 2008 National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan stated that India had “limited resources” in this regard. The fallout of this can be lethal -- imagine state secrets in the hands of the enemy.

We are all too familiar with hearing news of terror emails being ‘traced back’ to some location, but it is not enough. Cert-In (Indian Computer Emergency Response Team) set up by the Department of Information Technology, has been pushing for a national cyber security policy that will require government offices to keep updated with the latest security developments and also come up with a crisis management plan. Whats more, new amendments to the IT Act, 2000, have removed all references to ‘hacking’ (which was earlier said to be a crime based on intent and knowledge) and limited it to an activity that requires ‘permission’. Further, the Act makes no reference to the multi-jurisdictional issues involved when the attack is from another country, and makes all cyber crimes bailable offences, allowing our illustrious hacker to go home to delete all evidence of his crimes. “A toothless tiger,” is what Pawan Duggal, a cyberlaw expert calls it.

We need more bite for our byte.